Bristol City Council and Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust (AWP) have started an innovative programme to reduce the amount of petrol Community Health teams use.
Research for Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has found that air pollutants have high urban concentrations largely from "road transport sources". So if you live in a city on a busy road in a poor area, chances are that the air you breathe won't be exactly pure.
Pierre Fox is seconded from Bristol City Council to be Operational Manager at AWP. He says:
"Annually, we have four million miles of travel conducted in our trust - all done within the geographical area that our service users live in. So we're effectively adding to the pollution which is causing a negative impact on the health of the communities we are serving."
Producing that much pollution didn't seem like leading by example, and it was a model that had built into it "a huge amount of waste, financially". This is because the mileage system currently used nationally perversely rewards staff for driving more miles, not fewer.
The problems and how they were tackled
The health trust is an integrated service, with more than 100 staff seconded from Bristol City Council (predominantly from Adult Social Care) to work for the trust.
Fox worked with a number of its community-based teams to gauge support from staff to trial the use of low-emission vehicles. These would be diesel and electric-powered Smart cars and electric bicycles for visits to service users instead of their own cars.
He researched and developed a model of financial feasibility. He then put the cars and bikes into seven teams, although staff from 20 teams - about 500 people in all - can use them. The trust has so far purchased 20 low-emission pool Smart cars - one electric car, the rest are powered by diesel.
Outcomes and impact
About 20 per cent (100 staff) are using the low-emission cars and bikes - including one team member who has now decided to sell their car.
One team - the Bristol Vocational Service - is now ‘zero petrol'. It relies totally on an electric pool car and pool bikes, meaning that none of the team members claims a mileage allowance. In 2009 the team won the West of England Travel Awards Employer of the Year.
The trust is using the evidence of these early successes to make the case for increasing the scale of the project. It is investigating turning it into a social enterprise, supported by a range of partners including the city council.
The council is also building on the positive experiences so far by funding a workplace trial within its Health and Social Care directorate. The directorate has already reduced overall mileage by 20 per cent.
Claire Craner-Buckley, Environmental Adviser for the directorate, says that:
"…this has been achieved by raising staff awareness of the potential to reduce mileage through things such as better planning of journeys and improving the accuracy of mileage claims."
Costs and resources
The low emission pool cars and electric bikes are forecast to account for 3.5 per cent of the trust's total staff mileage each year. They are projected to reduce CO2 (carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas thought to contribute to climate change) emissions by 18 tonnes.
The project helps improve air quality and therefore health by reducing the number of ‘petro-miles' that staff do. This benefit is most noticeable in deprived areas. It is amplified because the average public sector employee has a relatively old car - seven to 11 years. These are likely to be the most polluting, as well as the least energy efficient. The diesel Smart cars used by the project are claimed to emit less than half of the CO2 of the older cars.
Service users are also benefiting from the project in other ways. Staff had got used to offering and providing lifts to service users in their cars. But one of the striking aspects of arriving to home visits by bike is that staff can no longer do this. Fox reports that, as a result, what was previously a very dependent relationship is now one that "is very different… staff are visibly demonstrating a message that promotes independence".
This has encouraged some service users to start cycling too, or even to take up vocational training within the cycling industry. The trust is working with Bristol Bike Project, a local voluntary organisation that teaches people to repair bicycles by refurbishing second-hand ones.
The refurbished bikes are given to local people - including some service users - to encourage them to cycle. The trust recently donated its first fleet of electric bikes to the project.
The personal health gains have been valued by all the staff involved in the scheme. This is additional to the wider health, social and environment benefits that have been important for some individuals.
Costs and resources
Providing the low emission cars and electric bikes has been an upfront cost for AWP. However, the payback period is short and the financial benefits continue indefinitely. For example, mileage for a typical full-time trust employee working in Bristol's inner city costs the trust an average of £850 a year. An electric bike costs £800 and will last on average five years. That is a saving of £3,450 after five years - minus maintenance costs.
The Vocational Service team paid for the electric car and bikes from its travel budget. It could justify this by arguing that it would no longer claim mileage allowance. Previously team members were claiming between 37p and 58p a mile for cars and 12p a mile for bicycles.
Sarah Fairham is the Manager of the Bristol Vocational Service team. She says that the savings form no mileage claims gives the team "extra leverage for other things", such as money for training.
Fairham says that one of the most persuasive factors for her and her staff was to try out the electric car and bikes before agreeing to participate:
"I love my car [but] I had a go on an electric bike and car and actually did a journey that I would need to do. There was nothing like really experiencing it and seeing what it feels like."
She also says that employers must "go the whole hog" by supplying all the equipment that staff are likely to need. This includes good quality lights, helmets, waterproofs, locks and panniers - storage bags that attach to a rack on the bicycle.
Employers also need to provide cycle training for staff, accident insurance, and a breakdown service. This is so that employees know who to call if something goes wrong. Fortunately there is a nationally accredited on-road training scheme called Bikeability.
Fox believes that other areas that want to replicate Bristol's project need to more than "simply providing the vehicles". They need to persuade employees to forgo claiming a mileage allowance. This is a nationally-agreed system so staff have to volunteer to opt out. One important aspect to tempting people out of their cars and onto bikes is to point out that a pool car is still available if they change their mind.
He suggests working directly with teams to allow them to choose a pool fleet (bikes and cars). This can help to reassure them that service provision won't be interrupted, and that they can stop claiming a mileage allowance.
Contact and links
Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership
Telephone: 07795 445633